Saraswathi Balgam, aka Vani, always knew that she wanted to be a filmmaker. Of course, it helped that she was from a family that encouraged creativity. Her father had quit his job as a banker to start an independent animation studio. “My father had a strong conviction in his vision for putting Indian animation and India stories on the global map,” she says. Recalling the long discussions between her father and the talented artists who worked with him, the founder and creative producer of Dancing Atoms, an independent creative studio says, “That was my real education.”
Balgam eventually became executive director of Rhythm & Hues Asia, an Academy Award-winning VFX studio and served as the head of creative management for DreamWorks Animation in Shanghai. She has worked on many Hollywood films, including managing the team of artists behind award-winning films like Life of Pi and The Golden Compass. Her early experience played a large part in this journey, she believes. “The idea that there is the freedom to express oneself is powerful; I was very fortunate to have that as a kid,” she says.
Balgam, part of the growing tribe of women in the VFX and animation industry, recently mentored a group of women selected to attend The Women Creators Program, an Epic Games and Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (ASIFA ) initiative. The four-week virtual training and mentorship programme, which kicked off in April, sought to nurture and support women creators, who still form an abysmally low percentage of the booming visual effects and animation industry.
These numbers dwindle further when it comes to leadership roles, leaving fewer female mentors and role models for young women who aspire to create cartoons (animation) or manipulate imagery (VFX). “My biggest concern is the lack of women in creative leadership in our industry. There are probably over 100 VFX houses in India, but how many have women as VFX supervisors? Maybe five?” says Balgam.
Gurugram-based filmmaker, the founder of Charuvi Design Labs and visual artist Charuvi Agrawal, also a mentor at the programme, says, “The industry lacks strong women at the top, which sets in a very patriarchal culture.”
Admittedly, this isn’t particularly unusual. Like both the film and technology industries—from which VFX and animation draw, marrying creativity with technical expertise—it was always an old boys club with high entry barriers and higher glass ceilings. Ask Gayathri Rao, a national award-winning animation filmmaker who has been part of the industry for over two- and-a-half decades. There were barely any women in the industry in India when she got into it in the 1990s. “Since 2D animation is an art that took time to master, it was assumed that training girls was a waste of time as they would be lost to matrimonial commitments soon,” remembers Rao, who, in response to the discrimination, started her studio, Animagic, in 1997. As the business grew and gained attention, more women trickled in, she says, adding that the succeeding generation has had better experiences and opportunities. “The field has progressed in the last 20-25 years,” she says.
Not enough, however. Rounak Magoo, Producer, Green Rain Studios, Mumbai, says that starting young in a male-dominated industry is still tricky. “It is extremely common for me to be the only woman in a room full of industry professionals,” she says, admitting that it is often a culture shock for some people, especially men, when they realise a younger woman is managing them. “Being fiercely unapologetic and constantly proving myself made the same people take me seriously and value my presence.”
Then there is the industry’s work culture, which often dissuades young women from joining or continuing. In a February 3, 2015 article published in Tech Crunch, VFX artists Sonya Teich and Raqi Syed pointed out that VFX’s subsidies-driven business model and culture of perpetual instability has normalised what they call a punishing lifestyle. “Many have internalised the idea that they must work 16-hour days for weeks on end or they aren’t essential to the process,” they write. The long working hours can impede the growth of women who—despite the conversation around gender parity—disproportionately bear the unpaid domestic burden.
“If there is work…you have to finish it,” says London-based Pragati Wadhwa, the founder of Elements VFX, adding that late nights and long hours hit women especially hard.
Agarwal agrees. One of the biggest struggles she has personally faced, she says, is balancing work with motherhood. “Animation work is extremely demanding of time, and hence this becomes very challenging,” she says.
Magoo believes that for the industry to become truly inclusive, working conditions need to be improved for everyone’s benefit, with provisions being made for all genders. “Having more women helps bring in policies that end up helping everyone around them as well,” she says. She believes that women tend to be better managers in this field “for the simple reason that they have had to go through years of proving themselves.”
Despite the long hours, the systemic sexism and discrimination and the financial struggles which come with trying to strike it on one’s own, being part of VFX and animation also comes with this: the deep satisfaction of creating something. Magoo recalls her initiation into this world as if it were yesterday. The year was 1994, and The Lion King had just been released. She remembers watching the movie on a VCR tape, sitting there enthralled by the animals of Pride Rock, terrified by the wildebeest stampede, and bemused by Rafiki. “I didn’t know how but I wanted to find a way to be a part of this magical world that brought stories to life,” she says. “As the song goes, it’s the circle of life.”
Sustained efforts, primarily from women in the industry, are creating a more encouraging ecosystem for the women in it. For instance, Women in Animation, a non-profit started in 1995 to support, as the name suggests, women in the industry has an ongoing pledge: to make the male/female ratio in creative roles 50/50 by 2025. “More than 60% of animation and art school students are women, and yet only 20% of the creative jobs are held by women,” notes the WIA website. The non-profit rolls out mentorship and education opportunities with this aim in mind, educating and building communities of creative women. Continuing to develop these communities could go a long way towards improving the industry overall, believes Balgam. “It is time women creators come together and collaborate,” she says. “We need more of those unique, authentic voices.”